Two noteworthy accomplishments worth calling attention to.
First, a 2017 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary to its credit, Raoul Peck's universally critically-acclaimed, and much-discussed I Am Not Your Negro, ended its USA theatrical run over the summer after 126 days, with a total box office gross of $7,123,919, earning it the number 33 ranking on the all-time USA box office of the highest grossing documentaries of all time.
The list is topped by provocateur Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 which grossed $119 million over the course of its entire theatrical run in 2004.
Three key things to keep in mind: Fahrenheit 9/11 was something of an outlier. Documentaries just don't earn that kind of box office; not even close to that. It's the only documentary to have grossed over $100 million (not adjusted for inflation). The next film on the list is March of the Penguins with $77 million - a significant $40+ million separating number 1 from number 2. Also note that the vast majority of films on the list (75% of them) grossed between $2 and $9 million, putting I Am Not Your Negro above the average. And finally, it's should be pointed out that I Am Not Your Negro's widest theatrical release was just 320 screens - nowhere near the 2,000 to 3,500 screens that most of the films in the top 10 were released on.
So with all that in mind, a roughly $7.1 million gross - especially given the film's challenging subject matter - is noteworthy. And it's not done yet, as it continues to open in new cities/countries outside the USA, expanding its reach, with openings this year in Australia, France, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, the United Kingdom and more.
Secondly, the film is also director Raoul Peck's highest grossing release in the USA by a substantial margin. His still woefully underseen great work Lumumba (2001), grossed just $352,00 at the box office. One can only hope that the critical and commercial success of I Am Not Your Negro has helped raise Peck's industry profile, urging audiences to seek out his past work (documentaries and scripted features), affording him even more opportunities to make the kinds of films he wants to. He's most certainly a necessary voice.
While not a primer for those unfamiliar with James Baldwin - more like a tribute to a project that Baldwin himself didn't live to see completed - to put together I Am Not Your Negro, Peck mined Baldwin’s published and unpublished oeuvre, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. His deeply personal notes for the project have never been published before. Peck’s film uses them to jump through time, juxtaposing Baldwin’s private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.
Why a film on Baldwin? Peck's response: "Because Baldwin is my life... I started reading Baldwin when I was 14 or 15, and I realized as an adult a lot of the things I was saying came from him."
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film is now widely accessible in the USA on various home video platforms. You're strongly encouraged to seek it out if you have yet to see it.